We first became acquainted with the unsettling work of Martyn Cross back in November 2018, when we stopped by That Art Gallery with SOME SUCH magazine founder Robin Savill to see Martyn’s solo show Truth Toggle. Interested in the notions of myth-making and its place in the creative process, Martyn uses paint and collage to forge a compelling archaeology of marginality that depicts humans and their mundane possessions in various poses and transcendental states.
We met with Martyn on a sunny Saturday afternoon at his creative space in BV Studios and joined him for a stroll around Windmill Hill City Farm across the road, chatting about his journey into art and the underlying philosophy that ties together his artistic practice. Martyn will be showing work at MOSTYN Open 21 exhibition, opening on the 13th of July 2019 in Llandudno.
Martyn, what were you like as a child? What did you want to be or become?
Thinking about my childhood is like trying to recall a dream the morning after a seriously deep sleep – it’s nigh on impossible to remember anything concrete, I know something happened but it’s just a blur. So I’m not sure I recall wanting to become anything in particular when I was a child. Living was the priority. Exploring was fun. I spent my salad days out on my skateboard or performing stunts on my mum’s foldable Easy-Rider bike deep into the dusky twilight. Much of that time was in my own company, playing the fool, although on odd occasions school friends cajoled me into gang stuff. I do remember doing lots of doodling but back then I was probably more concerned with how high I could throw a tennis ball than thinking about art.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
Because my memory is so terrible everything just merges into a heaving mass of grey, fuzzy images. I do however call to mind desolate suburban streets. No humans, just asphalt and waste-ground. A strong sense of place I suppose. That palpable feeling of quiet and of not much happening: of making your own amusement. I spent hours staring out of my bedroom window. Reading books. Melting wax. Nobody knows this, including my mum, but as a teenager my obsession with candles almost led to me burning down the house. Don’t ask me how but I’d managed to create some kind of flame-thrower effect using a simple lit candle, wet wax and a match; six-foot flames licked the bedroom walls and singed the curtains. I stood transfixed by the unexpected ferocity of the fire – I’ve never been so scared or felt so out of control, yet there was an inner calm. It was both exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure.
What about your first memory of art?
My first engagement with art would be of the now sadly destroyed Franta Belsky’s Four Seasons sculpture in Yate town centre. Not that I realised it was art at the time – it was just a large, white, multi-banana-shaped object that existed in my orbit and I accepted it being there. It stood out in the 1960’s build shopping centre. Only by beginning to study for my GCSEs did I start to understand that art was a ‘thing’ and that I could put the skills I’d learnt copying Garfield cartoons to good use.
How did you get into art? What was your journey like?
In some ways it feels like art has always been there, to the point where it’s now no longer something I treat differently – it’s just part of who I am and to try and pinpoint a beginning is impossible. But I suppose there are two things that may have had some influence when I was younger: hanging out in my grandad’s shed watching him make stuff, doing odd jobs, acting as apprentice, sifting sawdust; and the general encouragement from Mr Slann, my art teacher at school, to embrace creativity. One of my projects was painting a watercolour of a junk yard – that made me really happy, creating a picture of rubbish. It allowed me to realise there could be beauty in anything if you looked hard enough. After that I then threw everything into art-making, went to college, on to university, graduated, and then spent quite a few years fumbling around trying to work out what the hell I was doing. In some ways I’m still floundering, but I’ve just got better at disguising it.
Why does art matter for you? What inner necessities or tensions does it address?
Art doesn’t really matter. Or at least, that’s what I try to tell myself so I don’t go mad. Spending time in the studio is incredibly therapeutic, although I’d be reluctant to claim it as therapy as such. It’s more like alchemy. You throw stuff around and put things together, and when it works it’s like magic – a buzz unlike any other. The flip side of course is that it can also be hell if it goes wrong. You can have a good idea, spend all day painting and then realise you’ve spent hours making absolute garbage. The black mist descends. You despair every single brush mark but persist anyway. Then you give up, spend five minutes making something else and it turns out to be the greatest thing you’ve ever made. It’s a subtle science and I’m still no closer to mastering it, but it satisfies an inner need that can’t be found elsewhere.
Your artistic practice is an intersection of painting, collage, assemblage and installation. How does this creative fluidity inform the place that your body of work occupies within the wider sphere of contemporary art?
Despite a reasonably diverse practice I would always consider myself a painter first and foremost. I’m just a painter that dabbles in other things. But I’ve always had a problem with painting in as much as I’ve always struggled to justify the existence of the image I’m making. Why paint a picture? For years I would have ideas for paintings but the moment I started to make anything I would freeze. I couldn’t jump the final hurdle. In my head I had already made the painting: it seemed the idea was enough and that there was no image important enough to physically spend time painting it. I’d tell myself other artists had already done it and they had done it better. So that’s why I diversified and began making assemblages, collages and installation – there’s a freedom in using pre-existing things and adapting or destroying them to make something else. I used to paint on top of old knitting patterns for a while, using the image as a ground to build up from, finally putting them in found frames for display. This satisfied me for several years until I felt a need to move beyond the frame and then I began using plastic carrier bags as a means of experimentation, trying to bring two unlikely ways of working together, with mixed results. It was around this time I felt a bit isolated, like I didn’t fit into any camp – I wasn’t really a painter, I wasn’t really a sculptor – I didn’t really know what I was. Then after a twenty-year hiatus I started painting on canvas again and felt a sense of belonging and love from the painting community that I’d hitherto not experienced. I felt like I’d come home. It had taken me a while to realise that paintings are objects too, that they take up space, move around, get bumped about – it’s not just about the image on the surface. You need to spend time with the thing you’re making and have a relationship with it, almost suggest it into life through touch and physical hustle – the thing needs to live.
How would you define the connecting thread or underlying philosophy that ties together your work?
The work I make is, at its core, simple storytelling or myth making. I’m influenced by folktales and local history and the everyday gunk of living. When not painting I work in a bookshop and read a lot of fiction, so the stuff I’m soaking up with my eyeballs needs to be released somehow. It seeps out of my fingertips. Sometimes I can barely recall what books I’ve read, but it’s all absorbed and years later it might gradually ooze to the surface and influence a painting. So generally the philosophy that underpins what I make is taken from the written word and, as my wife will tell you, the books I read are always, always about the same thing, even if the blurb on the jacket might protest otherwise. It’s come to my attention in recent years that I like a book about humans (in particular outsiders or those at the fringes of society) at the very brink of their emotional, physical and spiritual tether, so I guess that’s what comes out in my work and is what I fundamentally explore.
What would you like the viewers to take away from your work?
I don’t for a second think that anybody takes anything from my work, and I’d hate to shove any particular thoughts down the throat of a viewer. People can experience whatever they want and I’m happy for it to be in contrast to my original intentions – that’s what provides the artwork with vigour. The minute you start trying to tell the viewer what to think is the moment you’ve failed to get your point across. Artwork should speak for itself and not need a handout. If anyone wants to know how a painting was birthed, I can tell them, but otherwise their own interpretation is perfectly valid and I enjoy hearing what they think.
“Alone Lonely Lonesome Life” is one of the works that we saw during your solo show at That Art Gallery at the end of last year, and its title made us ask ourselves whether or not the artistic life is fundamentally a lonely one. With this in mind, could you tell us how do you experience the distance between yourself and the outside world and what is the nature of this distance? Are there any daily, repeatable practices you engage in order to counteract this distance and close the gap between inside and outside, individual and society, artist and audience?
Studio practice is the simple answer. By throwing yourself into a room for a few hours and thrashing around some coloured mud on a hairy stick, you find some clarity. You switch off. You become a third entity that is somewhere between functioning adult and electric impulses. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be a lonely existence – I share a studio with several other artists and there is always dialogue across the room, though we all know when to leave each other alone and put in some graft. There’s a romantic notion that artists are in some ways removed from society but actually, we’re just like other humans and want to be loved.
Where do you feel most at home?
Wherever there are books and paintings. The studio. My front room. I also love walking – can you feel at home walking?
Do you see any dangers for artistic freedom?
At the moment Instagram leaves me slightly unsettled although it grips me to a terrifying degree. On one hand it allows you to share whatever you’ve made very quickly and you can explore a world of art via your fingertips, almost circumnavigating the whole gallery system. But on the other hand it contrives to stifle and control with its ever-constant visual scream that suppresses and depresses as much as it excites and informs. There are definitely moments where I have to switch off from social media because I’ve fallen into zombie-scroll mode. It’s good to see what’s going on out there and keep abreast of contemporary attitudes in painting/making, but reality is removed when you’re looking at a screen. I always prefer to see things in the flesh. The peril of social media is that it makes us lazy – sometimes we need to liberate ourselves.
What are three questions you don’t have an answer for?
1. Kai Althoff or Pincher Martin?
2. Sun Ra or Hilma af Klint?
3. How did Tina, the family cat, die?
Where can we see your work this year?
I’ve a couple of things in the pipeline, some of which still needs to be finalised, but I’ve been selected for the Mostyn Open in Llandudno which I’m looking forward to. That takes place in July and August, so I’d just say, get on over to Wales, keep an eye on Instagram or come visit me in the studio.
What new ideas are obsessing you at the moment and where do you think they will lead you?
The most recent things to latch themselves on are gargoyles. I can’t get enough of them at the moment. Ever since spending time in St Germans in Cornwall researching a local and eccentric character called Bernard Skuse, I’ve been thinking about making some paintings using them, and him, as a basic starting point. When I was there I visited the local church and saw one gargoyle that resembled someone smoking a bong – I was instantly spellbound and thought ‘here we go’. I’m not entirely sure how the two things will splice together, but it’ll be fun finding out.
And finally, a question from Éric Poindron’s Weird Questionnaire: What goes on in tunnels?
Tunnels are hidden arteries under the surface. It’s where the life-blood flows.